Thirty-six years ago this winter, a Catholic young man living in San Juan, P.R., took a leap of faith and — sight unseen — chose a secluded, wooded Benedictine campus in a faraway land called “Minnesota” as his home for the following four years.
It was the best decision of my life (up to that point; meeting and marrying a certain green-eyed woman now tops the list).
I could not know this when my mother left me at St. John’s University in rural, seemingly godforsaken Collegeville. I was bereft as Mom drove away (I was a bit of a mama’s boy) and skeptical as to whether this Waldenesque, alarmingly silent setting so different from my teeming tropical home would suit me.
I was even more doubtful that first winter when snow piled up waist-high. (Minnesotans might remember the early 1980s as pretty doggone snow-y.) I desperately missed palm trees and the booming sound of the ocean surf.
But a strange thing happened. The end of spring semester rolled around, I was due to go home for the summer … and I did not want to leave. Sitting by Lake Sagatagan, and looking out at the Stella Maris chapel amidst the trees on the opposite bank, I was inconsolable.
The cycle repeated for the next three years.
As the snow accumulated in the fall, I broke out my cross-country skis and — after fueling up with a Hostess Fruit Pie purchased at the now-defunct basement cafeteria in Mary Hall — hit the hilly trails ringing the Sag.
And, as the spring term wound down, I again felt a wrenching sensation in my stomach as I prepared to leave the campus. My final departure in 1985 was, obviously, the worst.
I would never really leave St. John’s. It is still my home, in a sense, and my college buddies are still my friends to this day.
One of these forever friends, Roger Young, was the St. John’s admissions director when I was looking at schools, and I largely have him to thank for my improbable decision to transplant myself from tropics to tundra.
I thought about all of this yesterday as my wife and I drove our high-school senior from our St. Paul home to Collegeville for a tour and other activities intended for prospective male enrollees (St. John’s is an all-dude school).
He had just been accepted at St. John’s, causing his Johnnie old man to do an Ed Grimley (while feeling a twinge of sadness that it was not the recently retired Roger Young who signed off on his acceptance).
My love for St. John’s is a source of amusement in my home. As I giddily snapped photos like a tourist on the campus tour yesterday, my wife and son smiled as they exchanged knowing glances.
Truth be told, they weren’t 100-percent sold on St. John’s as a top pick (and it has been my longstanding policy not to overly pressure them however much I want to push my alma mater).
They are city folk, after all. My son is looking at the University of Minnesota, where he’s been accepted into the College of Liberal Arts, and at my alma mater’s private-college arch-rival, the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. My wife is a Tommie, a fact I decided to overlook when I married her 😉
St. John’s had a challenge in wooing my son, and performed admirably. It rightfully made a fuss over the fact that a student at its nearby Benedictine partner, the College of St. Benedict for women, was recently anointed a Rhodes scholar.
(Note: St. Ben’s and St. John’s are essentially one coeducational institution, with all students having access to all academic programs, athletic facilities, dining halls and extracurricular activities; the only difference is in the living arrangements, with Bennies residing entirely on one campus and Johnnies on another.)
More broadly, St. John’s did a great job of conveying the school’s essence — an environment in which grades are but one measure of success, and where students can explore their passions without undue pressure. For the right kind of student, St. John’s is an academic eden in the liberal-arts tradition.
For my son, who is fearful of being locked into a major too early in the game, this message resonated. He has, after all, wildly varying interests, ranging from violin playing and robot building to political, economic and legal discourse. St. John’s looks to be a good fit in this regard, he realized.
My kid had to see himself living at St. John’s, though. And, as we tramped across the campus on a frightfully frigid day, and my son slipped on a huge snowbank at one point during the guided tour, I feared the school was not making the best possible impression. (Though he has visited the campus before, it’s been a while, and he had never done so in the dead of winter.)
But when I later asked in the car what he thought of St. John’s, he uttered but one word: “Sure.”
This is the kid’s laconic shorthand for, “OK, fine, you sold me, St. John’s is now one of my primary prospects, can we please stop talking about this?”
Then, a bit worn out from the day’s activities, he went down for a nap as we traveled home.
As a result, he couldn’t see the old man pumping his fist in the air.